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faith & spirituality | imperialism & war

"Theo-Poetry" against Religious Illiteracy

The language of having replaces the language of being.. Our relation to the world is defined by the most important idols worshipped by our culture: money and violence. Many people fall into a strange helplessness toward everything that cannot be acquired, possessed and marketed.

Interview with Dorothee Soelle, protestant theologian

[This interview is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.kath.ch/index.php?na=11,0,0,0,d,18678. Dorothee Soelle, the author of many books including "Suffering," "The Arms Race Kills Even Without War," "Thinking about God" and "On Earth as in Heaven," opposed the false narratives of war, fundamentalism and consumerism.]

["Religious language should not be made the affair of Bible specialists," the well-known political theologian Dorothee Soelle said. One cause of the growing religious illiteracy is that Christian churches often treat people as underage. A new "theo-poetry" is needed today, in which laypersons express their religious longings and desires.]

Q: Ms. Soelle, as a theologian you have grappled intensively with religion and language. Why is "religious illiteracy" spreading in German society? Have more and more persons lost the religious language?

Dorothee Soelle: There are a whole series of reasons for this development. One of them is that the Christian churches often treat people as underage. Children in their natural, uninhibited everyday language can often better express transcendence.

Q: Can you give us an example?

Soelle: I once had an unforgettable experience with my granddaughter. When she visited us, she removed all the cups from the cupboard, set up a café and invited many invisible guests. She poured them coffee and was very satisfied. After a while, her mother said: "You must stop and clear the table because we want to eat now." In reply, the child said: "Mama, you only think practically!"

This sentence of my granddaughter was striking to me. I usually do not think "practically" but in God or transcendence...

Q: Do you think adults can relearn the lost religious language from children?

Soelle: Yes, I believe that. The world of adults is marked by a fatal exclusiveness, a fixation on the factual that can lead to a dangerous fatalism: "Nothing can be done." Such resigned statements are destructive and hostile to life. They are ultimately false. One can do something so fewer children die of starvation!

Q: You once said we live in a world where the "language of having" replaces the "language of being." What did you mean?

Soelle: In a language world dominated by consumerism, we can only express ourselves in the categories of having. Our relation to the world is defined by the most important idols worshipped by our culture: money and violence. Linguistically this means many people fall into a strange helplessness toward everything that cannot be acquired, borrowed, bought, conquered, possessed, controlled and marketed - as if language only exists to transform everything into a deal: "I give you and you give me." Then the world becomes ultimately hopeless.

Q: What would it mean concretely to be devoted to the "language of being"?

Soelle: poetry and prayer nourish the language of being. Wherever we escape the language of domination and attempt another language, this means learning to listen, understand and speak. Language creation is the new development of language into a source of strength and encouragement extending far beyond analytical-critical knowledge.

Q: Doesn't theology suffer today in that it congeals too much in a scholarly-analytical language?

Soelle: Yes. Protestant theology has largely adjusted to scientific language. I came from a non-Christian home and learned through a female teacher influenced by the great protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann that I did not need to surrender my intelligence at the church door. That undoubtedly helped me at that time. Today I see again the inadequacy of a language of theologians oriented in a one-sided scholarly way.

Q: You emphasize that "theo-logy" must be supplemented by a "theo-poetry." What do you mean concretely?

Soelle: While great theology in the past always practiced telling stories and praying, we often meet a poetry-less theology today. What can be said scientifically has precedence before what is desired or dreamt: faith, hope and love. Religious language should not be made an affair of specialists who must study ancient languages and philosophy seven years.

Q: To what extent is theo-poetry different than traditional theology?

Soelle: "Theo-poetry," as I understand it, is essentially used by laypersons and expresses their religious longings and desires in everyday language. The language of theo-poetry is alive and vigorous.

Therefore the church should encourage people at the base to find their own religious language and not only pass on the pre-given language. The church must strengthen and integrate people in the process of what is called liturgy and prayer. This new language is more holistic since it addresses the feelings of people and not only their intellect.

Q: Does the Catholic Church with its more holistic approach as in the liturgy have an advantage over the rather "head-centered" church services of the Reformed?

Soelle: Yes. Sensuousness is expelled from Protestantism so that the lighting of candles almost becomes idolatry. Catholicism has been more open to mystical experiences and mystical belief. From the scholastics, we know a marvelous definition of mysticism: Mysticism involves the knowledge of God from experience, not only from scripture or the church. That God would be belittled this way is not true for me. The Bible teaches clearly God is "greater than our heart" and certainly greater than our intelligence.

Q: Does that mean orienting theology and the church increasingly in human experiences?

Soelle: Obviously! The experiences of people from everyday life, their feelings of happiness and their religious desires must be integrated more holistically. The existential reality of true theology often perishes in the scientific enterprise. In contrast, theo-poetry should be set in relation to "narrative" and "prayer" as an alternative form of theological proclamation that includes existential experiences.

The strongest language of religion was always prayer. Simone Weil described prayer as the highest stage of attention. The German poet Jean Paul once said correctly: "Praying is desiring, only fiery, burning and passionate."

Q: For many people, prayer is a private affair that they usually do not speak about publically...

Soelle: Unfortunately that notion is very widespread. Theo-poetry clears away the misunderstanding that prayer is something private and unpublishable. When people pray together, they allow common desiring, hoping and dreaming. They rediscover the lost language to share what they feel with one another. Poetry and prayer are attempts to speak so the separations of public and private, outward and inward actually become superfluous and do not play any role any more.

Q: Isn't the problem with prayer connected with the widespread error that an "enlightened" person cannot possibly pray?

Soelle: Perhaps but this attitude is somewhat naïve. When we are confronted with the growing barbarism in the present world, we soon notice: we cannot solve our problems with enlightenment and reason alone. The Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, is full of prayers and accusations to god. Job, a completely enlightened person, did not assume God in heaven "can press a button and make everything good again." In the psalms, we also find a kind of prayer that is in no way only humble and submissive but can also flow into complaint and anger against God. This passion of indignation is part of a living vigorous relation to God.

Q: Have the prayers in our churches become too tame? In other words, is the form of Old Testament complaint unnecessary for linguistically mastering the theodicy problem today?

Soelle: I have personally wrestled with this question for a long time and encountered some criticism with my "theology after the death of God." With the help of feminist theology, I came to understand that the real theological problem is ultimately the false assumption of God's omnipotence. Omnipotence is not the right term. God needs friends to change anything in this world. If I ask as a German, why God allowed Auschwitz, I must say: God was not omnipotent then.

Q: What do you mean?

Soelle: God was little and miserable because he had no friends. This is also true today when our mother earth "is crucified" as the theologian Matthew Fox formulates. With the marvelous sentence "Now it is Good Friday, time to comfort God," the writer Heinrich Boll lamented "God's defeats" in our world and that the love of people fails. Still there are always liberation experiences alongside these defeats. We should share these experiences and visions of life in abundance with one another.

Q: You coined the sentence "The desire less bird does not fly far" and emphasized that utopias are "necessary means of survival" for humanity. Do you believe contemporary people have lost utopias?

Soelle: Unfortunately a whole series of critical and intellectual leftists succumbed to resignation after 1989. They withdrew and did not dare say anything any more. As a Christian woman, I cannot approve this resignation. We know similar experiences within Christianity for millennia. Jesus preached God's reign but instead the reign of the pope, the inquisition, the burning of witches, colonialism and conquest of the world came in the name of Christianity. Still this does not mean we should not advance and struggle for God's reign.

Q: Are you still optimistic and holding fast to your utopias?

Soelle: Through my experiences in Seattle, I have become much more hopeful since 1999. I discover a new movement of a "globalization from below" today that was visible again at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Many Christians and ecologically minded persons join together and say: "This cannot continue! There must be an alternative to this false globalization."

The protestant theologian and literary scholar Dorothee Soelle born in 1929 in Koln is one of the best-known theologians of our time. From 1975 to 1987, she was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York as successor to Paul Tillich after being denied a professorship in Germany. Through her many poems, books and political engagement in the peace movement, the evangelical theologian made a name for herself far beyond the German border. In the framework of "Night Discussions on Literature and Religion," Dorothee Soelle spoke on the theme "Cracking the Ice of the Soul." Language can crack the ice of the frozen soul, Franz Kafka once said.

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